Monday, 23 March 2009

Born Believers: The Naturalness of Childhood Theism

This is the live blog of the third talk in CFI U.K.'s "God in the lab" meeting at Conway Hall, 21st March, 2009.

Justin Barrett is Senior Researcher, Acting Director, Centre for Anthropology & Mind and Lecturer, Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. Justin L. Barrett earned degrees in psychology from Calvin College (B.A.) and Cornell University (Ph.D). He served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Dr. Barrett is an editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture and is author of numerous articles and chapters concerning cognitive science of religion. His book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira, 2004) presents a scientific account for the prevalence of religious beliefs. He is currently Senior Researcher at Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.

“Recent best-selling books may give the impression that children only believe in gods because of a combination of possessing a tragically gullible mental tabula rasa and abusive indoctrination practices. Nonsense. Recent scientific study of children’s conceptual structures reveals that children’s minds are naturally receptive to god concepts… In this presentation, relevant scientific evidence is presented. Children are ‘born believers’ in the sense that under normal developmental conditions they almost inevitably entertain beliefs in gods.”


Michael Brooks "Natural Born Believers" in the New Scientist asks will children in isolation develop religious beliefs? Paul Bloom says yes. So does Pascal Boyer and Deborah Kelemen - who would say the same. We can ask "Are children intuitive theists?"

Brooks will present some experiments that show how children can be called be "born believers".

Evidence exists that children might find especially natural the idea of a non-human creator of the natural world possessing super powers etc. From infancy one strategy to understand the world is "promiscuous teleology" (Kelemen) we seek purpose even where it does not exist. From an early age children give "intelligent design" - final purpose explanations - for a range of phenomenon. 12month old babies know that agents create order (Newman and Keil).

The false belief task cannot be dealt with by 3-4 year olds, but older kids can (the following is a quote from an on-line link congruent with but no the same as what Brooks presented).
A more focused perspective on TOM comes from developmental psychology. Children show a precocious ability to understand intentions and other important aspects of the mind (as gaze direction, attention, pretense). Nevertheless, in the early 80, the psychologists H. Wimmer and J. Perner showed that a full-fledged TOM doesn’t develop before the age of 3/4. They set up a series of experimental tests in order to check whether children between 3 and 5 years of age were able to attribute a false belief to someone else. In one of these experiments, children see a scene in which a character, Maxi, puts chocolate in a drawer and goes away. While he is away, his mother takes a bit of chocolate for cooking and then puts it somewhere else and goes out. Then Maxi comes back, and the experimenter asks: "Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?". The 1983 original results showed that children over 5 did not have problems in attributing to Maxi a false belief, whereas younger children predicted indifferently that Maxi could look for the chocolate where his mother has put it. Further experiments lowered the threshold of attributing false beliefs to 3/4 years of age. The false belief task , as it is called, defines a sharp watershed between a stage of child’s development in which children have a sort of "transparent" reading of mind and reality (people believe what it is the case), and a stage in which they show a capacity of having an "opaque" reading of mind and reality, that is, they can easily distinguish between what is the case and what people believe is the case. This has been taken as an important piece of evidence of the development of a domain specific ability in dealing with mentalistic concepts, such as believe, which doesn’t seem to be available in earlier stages.[Theory of Mind]

Another task was the Droodle Task.

The false belief measure used was part of a "droodle task" developed by Chandler and Helm (1984). Because this same task also served as the basis for assessing participant’s interpretive understanding of ambiguous stimuli, the procedure and stimuli are described in full in the following section.In this task, children are shown a cartoon drawing depicting an elephant eating a peanut (see Figure 1), and asked to describe the picture. A cover is then placed over the drawing, leaving only a small portion of the original drawing visible. Participants are then introduced to a doll (Michelle), who has "seen" only this small portion of the original picture. They are asked what Michelle might think this is a picture of. A child who has is unable to attribute false beliefs to others will typically respond that Michelle will think this is a picture of an elephant eating a peanut. Because it would be extremely unlikely for anyone who has seen only the limited view of the picture to interpret the picture in this way, such a response can be considered a "reality error" and indicates that the child is inappropriately attributing her own privileged knowledge to the puppet. Children who understand the role of perception in belief formation will attribute a false-belief to the doll; they will say the doll thinks this is a picture of a chimney, or a hockey stick, or some other imagined thing. This first portion of the task served as the measure of false belief understanding. Children who attributed a false belief to Michelle (that is, said that she would think the picture was something other than what the child herself knew it to be), were credited with an understanding of false belief and a copy theory of mind. [What do you mean you don't like candy]

Developmental support for a super-knowing god:

When children are evaluated for the knowledge of the contents of a closed box from the age of 3 to 6, after the age of 4 there is a divergence between the understanding of god and human beings (e.g. mother). This was replicated with Mayan children thinking humans are like god when younger and only diverging when older that humans are trickable whereas god is untrickable. Other tasks he covered were the "secret game". As the child gets older there is a divergence between an "untrickable" god and their mom and dog (although a dog is more trickable than mom). This is the first study in the theory of mind that shows that three year olds can make distinctions between different types of mind even if there is still over-attribution of knowledge to different minds. As kids get older their capacity to differentiate different types of mind increase but it takes them longer characterise the knowledge capabilities of people than gods (by two years)!

By four years of age, half have imaginary friends. Even infants show evidence of reasoning that coloured discs as intentional agents with goals. Reasoning about unseen or non-present agents is a normal activity maybe this is why they do not need agents to have bodies?

Is such a belief is some kind of afterlife universal? Why this recurrence? He also mentions "intuitive dualism" as mentioned previously.

Because of these assumptions, kids can reason about gods properties earlier than humans! They may readily understand, acquire and believe in god concepts that approximate these assumptions.

As a result he rejects the "indoctrination hypothesis" - "If you threaten and it can't be disproved they'll believe". No, not anything, only certain things related to this innate and intuitive dualism and teleology. Professionals find the indoctrination hypothesis unconvincing. The cultural environment just fills in the details.

So he concludes that all this evidence supports that children are born believers. I asked about what studies are done as children get older beyond the age of 8. There are various studies showing the rejection of theism in teenagers. He said there is insufficient research but still 85% of the world population are believers so this natural propensity is not often overcome or grown out of.

Postscript: republished with typos and HTML fixes.